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A tribute to the late Michael Mandel

A student remembers his law professor
|Written By Jaime Mor
A tribute to the late Michael Mandel

I can’t tell you what Osgoode Hall Law School professor Michael Mandel meant to each of the approximately 4,000 students he had a hand in educating over his 39-year academic career. I can, however, tell you what he meant to me.

I met Mandel on the day of my first criminal law class. With his trademark smile and sense of humour, he proceeded to introduce us to the topic of law with a single statement: “Law is not a thing,” he said, “but a way of arguing about things.”

The intellect of the man was such that, frankly speaking, none of us could keep up with him that first day. Heck, he navigated through the complexities and abstractions of criminal law with such speed and ease that I’m not sure it’s entirely possible for anyone to be equal to that task.

Nevertheless, he taught us what we needed to know and he was perennially humorous and approachable (most delightfully peculiar was his use of an illustrated chart full of cartoonish happy and sad faces to teach us about the different standards of mens rea).

While it is undoubtedly true that over the years many have found his teaching style to be a bit too complex for introductory classes, his love for teaching was abundantly clear, and for this we loved him right back.

Always the consummate critic, we were far more likely to hear a lecture on the logical fallacies and inconsistencies of a major Supreme Court of Canada decision than we were to learn its most practical applications. This is a man who would unashamedly craft exam questions like: “Which one of the following two major decisions was worse, and why?”

For him, the point wasn’t to blindly teach us what the law was; rather, it was to teach us to critically think on the law, question it, and decide for ourselves whether or not we agreed with it. In hindsight, I can’t imagine a more useful class — law school is not as much about teaching substantive law as it is about teaching students a way of thinking.

By semester’s end, I decided I hadn’t had enough and signed up for his legal politics course. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I would come to learn of the title he jokingly claimed would provide a much more fitting description of the course: “‘Why I Hate the Charter’ with Michael Mandel.”

It was in this class, as in his other seminars, that one really got the full dose of the man’s abilities. Each week, we would read from his seminal work and discuss his principled criticisms of our beloved Charter.

Law students tend to bring strong opinions into the classroom about human rights and the legal system, and Mandel was all too happy to moderate the week’s spirited discussion while injecting some of his own views from time to time. Each class was filled with passionate debate, plenty of laughter, and most importantly, the chance to learn something new and interesting.

Like many others, I didn’t agree with all of his views. The striking thing about his work, however, is it is every bit as meticulously researched and logically presented as its arguments are radical. This combination of radical views and well-reasoned argumentation left me feeling something that countless others have felt before: You may have disagreed with him, but you were simply never going to win a principled argument with the man. He was simply too passionate, too well prepared, and most of all, too ferociously intelligent.

There are many who have prematurely judged him based on the content of his views. Instead he should be judged, and indeed remembered, by the content of his character.

Mandel was an incredibly bright, curious, and friendly educator with an insatiable passion for truth and a principled respect for democracy and human rights. It takes a courageous man to adopt views that run contrary to the status quo in pursuit of truth and justice, but it takes an immeasurably more impressive man to use his intellect to show others the veracity of those views.

Most of all, Mandel should be remembered as someone with a boundless appetite for life, who devoured task after task, and always finished what he started. I didn’t quite realize the extent to which he embodied these qualities until recently when, while attending his funeral, I learned I had unknowingly played witness to the most incredible story.

Like many students, I record most of my lectures for the purpose of reviewing them later in preparation for exams or final papers. When I go back and review my recordings of legal politics, each session is titled only with the course name and date, save for the very last class on which I added the words “best lecture.”

That last class was vintage Mandel. At the end, he was given a round of applause and a customized T-shirt with the words “1 person = 1 vote” written on it; an allusion to one of his central democratic philosophies.

While we all knew this was his last class of the year, we didn’t know he was already quite sick and shouldn’t have been teaching at all. In fact, it was later determined that he had taught the entirety of that final class in a state of almost complete heart failure and had to drive himself directly to the hospital upon its completion. Mandel died on Oct. 27 at the age of 65.

A passion for education, an astonishing intellect, and a willpower for the ages — that is the legacy of Michael Mandel. I am as thankful for the year I got to spend with him as I am sad for the immense loss to future generations of Osgoode students.

Thanks for changing the way we see the world, professor. You will be missed and never forgotten.

Jaime Mor is a second-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School.